We’re all Blind

“A Conversion,” by Martin Buber, was a difficult read. Within his writing, I struggle to discern exactly what his intention is with providing such a vague description of a moment in which he is having a rare experience with Mystery. He says at the start that “In the early years the ‘religious’ was for me the exception.” (Buber 84) However, what I believe we ultimately hear described is a conversion: Buber changes from one perspective to another. Where before Mystery was the exception, at the end of his work he says that, “I possess nothing but the everyday out of which I am never taken. The mystery is no longer disclosed, it has escaped or it has made its dwelling here where everything happens as it happens.” (Buber 84)

It is much easier to understand the difference between an “I-It” relationship (relating to another as an object, like viewing the world through the “arrogant eye” discussed previously) and an “I-Thou” relationship (relating to the other as a thou, like viewing the world through the “loving eye) when we examine it through the Raymond Carver’s “The Cathedral.” In the story, a man writes about his wife who has been friends with a blind man for around ten years. The man, this woman’s husband, doesn’t really want the blind man to come. To her husband, the blind man is summed up in his disability. At one point, while reflecting on the death of the blind man’s wife, he says, “And then to slip off into death, the blind man’s hand on her hand, his blind eyes streaming tears—I’m imagining now—her last thought maybe this: that he never even knew what she looked like, and she on an express to the grave.” (Carver 4) His understanding of the blind man is entirely constrained by the “It” of his blindness. He imagines how miserable the man’s wife must have been at not being seen by her husband, never considering all the ways we see each other without our eyes.

It isn’t until he sees the blind man as a thou that he begins to understand that this truly and fully a man, a person with depth and capacity similar to his own. After his wife fell asleep on the couch, they began watching a show together on cathedrals. At times where it wasn’t narrated, the man attempted to describe what he was seeing to the blind man. He says, “Something has occurred to me. Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me? If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about? Do you the difference between that and a Baptist church, say?” (Carver 10) The blind man answers in contexts that likely did not occur to the man: he speaks of the number of workers it took, the amount of years, the generations of investment. He shared that he understood that men would start a project knowing that they wouldn’t see it completed. Eventually, the blind man asks the man to draw a cathedral for him, and places his hand on the mans so that he might “see” what the man is drawing though the movements. This is really the point where the man truly begins to see the blind man as a thou. He put all his energy into trying to describe through these movements what a cathedral was.

At the very end, the blind man asked the man who was drawing to close his eyes, but to keep drawing. Finally, at the end, the blind man asks him to look at his drawing and tell him what he thinks. The man, now, is not quite ready to open his eyes. I think this is an expression of solidarity with the blind man, of really seeing the man in his wholeness. We witness the woman’s husband shift from viewing the blind man as an “it” to a “thou,” and the weird and beautiful things that can come out of that transition.

 

Works Cited

Buber, Martin. “A Conversion.” Meetings. London: Routledge, 2002. Excerpt.

Carver, Raymond. “Cathedral.” Carver, Raymond. Collected Stories. New York: Library of America, 2009. Short Story.

 

Advertisements

Practical Spirituality

Spirituality must be practical. It sounds so common sense and yet how often do people end up feeling distanced from it, as if it is impractical or inapplicable to their everyday life? Dorthee Solle and Fubert Steffensky are quoted from Not Just Yes and Amen: Christians with a Cause, as saying “We can neither deceive God nor impose something on him. We can only slowly forget God, and that would be terrible since then we would slowly be forgetting ourselves as well.” (Bass, 68) To avoid this circumstance we must take practical steps to make sure the spiritual is part of our everyday; that it is part of what we do, how we do it and ultimately who we are.

First of these steps is to make sure that the things we do are life giving. Biblically, this is a theme that runs like a vein through all the scriptures, to give life to others and ourselves. This includes caring for and respecting our body as well as the body of others. It can also be useful in discerning when to say yes and when to say no to something as opposed to defaulting to an answer without any affording it any consideration. One of the places where we as a society are experiencing a deficit in this area the most is in hospitality. “It is tragically evident in homelessness and widespread hostility to immigrants.” (Bass, 3) In the most basic of forms, this means that we make sure that where possible, we always take into consideration not just charity but also empowerment and justice.

Second is to make sure that in times of change, we are not alone, that we are in community. Again, evidence of this struggle can currently be seen in the abundant self-help section of any store. “Dislocated and disconnected, we suppose that self-help offers our best hope. Lacking shared beliefs, we conclude that our private preferences are the closest we can come to the truth of matters.” (Bass, 4) But this is not the path of the Christian. Although we may retreat and spend time alone with God, we find context for what we hear from God and ourselves within community. Practically speaking, we see some of this direction given in Hebrews 10:24-25 “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Lastly but just as critically, is to practice; to put into action ones faith. “Practices, therefore, have practical purposes: to heal, to shape communities, to discern. Oddly, however, they are not treasured only for their outcomes. Just taking a full and earnest part in them is somehow good in itself, even when purposes that are visible to the human eye are not achieved.” (Bass, 7) All those earlier steps are critical at this juncture (and should continue) because we need our practices to always be life giving. We need to make sure that we are operating not alone but in truth and finally, that we are practicing together, in community when possible. This allows us to not only keep one another on track and accountable but to be hospitable and invitational to others who want to join our community.

Referenced: Dorothy Bass, Practicing Our Faith Second Ed.

My Thoughts on “The Holy Longing” Part 1: Celibacy, Spirituality, Megachurch, the Soul, etc.

In ‘The Holy Longing,’ Ronald Rolheiser says that, “Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with that desire.” (Rolheiser, 5). In previous sentences he describes this desire he speaks of, the one that burns inside each human and compels them forward. It is spoken of in different terms and in different sciences or faiths but it points to the same raw feeling: that we are rarely ever restful and knowing peace. This idea of a desire that burns inside us and compels us and eats at us and leaves us feeling both partially consumed and in pursuit of consumption is ancient. He follows with the claim that everyone has spirituality and that what defines it is how we feed the fire and what level of contentment we find. If being a “saint” is as he describes, channeling your fire towards one goal, he offers than insightful counterbalance that most of humanity struggles with the desire to both be the saint and have the experience of the sinners. We want it all but there is a cost.

For me, that fire would have been more aptly described as a black hole and I’ve spoken to quite a few people in their twenties and thirties who have said similar things. It started when I was almost in my teens, when I had decided God was about as real as Santa Clause. This godless world my denial left me is brought with it frequent anxiety attacks at the imminent death of me and all the people I loved. Additionally, I now felt like I had to save people because there was no Jesus to do any saving. In order to give myself some goals, I picked up the “American Dream” and began checking off my boxes. Degree, great job, good money, big house, live-in boyfriend with his two kids… but I was drowning is sorrows. I was being swallowed by this black hole I carried it around in the middle of me. Finally, fourteen years after walking away from God, I went and heard about Jesus again. I saw myself in the “Christmas Story” of the Hebrew people who had been waiting for a Messiah. I too had been waiting for my Savior and he had already come and died on the cross for me. That black hole I carried around was shattered by the Gospel and I began to receive the Holy Spirit in its place. Therefore I don’t think of spirituality the same way Rolheiser appears to because, for me and the people I talk to who talk about having a black hole inside them, we weren’t driven by fire. We were driven by survival and necessity. I don’t think everyone has spirituality. I think we either have Faith, which we feed either by religion or spirituality, or we have Voids, and we feed that by throwing worldly things into the gulf hoping it makes us feel a little bit better.

The spiritual assessment scale was helpful for me in that I didn’t realize how strong I was in all three: my personal faith, my religious practice and my spiritual contentment. I know so little, my time with God has been so short, that it is encouraging to me to see that I have gotten to such a point of trusting him. Much of my personal faith and contentment with him no doubt stems from the depths of relationships I’ve built within my community, who helped be in learning to praise God and be in a prayerful state. Volunteering has always been something I’ve enjoyed so that has really helped me to build new relationships as I’ve established my faith as well.

One of the concepts I have an issue with is the section on the soul. He talks about oneness, that we keep the soul away from ourselves too much. Secondly, he says “A healthy soul, therefore, must do two things for us. First, it must put some fire in our veins, keep us energized, vibrant, living with zest… Second a health soul has to keep us fixed together…” (Rolheiser, 14). I understand the soul completely differently. It is part of a trinity in which we exist, of the body, soul and spirit, as referenced in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. The body is pulled by our desires and needs; this is where part of the fire burns inside of us. Our spirit is the part of us that is of God and was made in his image before we were given bodies. The soul is in the most simplistic term, this third battleground area where we make choices on which of those two we “feed.” Are we to care and serve the Spirit or the wants and the desires of the body? Perhaps it is just verbiage but understanding the internal spiritual dynamic was very helpful in my understanding the world in which I live.

The second part I would perhaps take issue with would be regarding the following statement made: “We might well want to remember this at those times when we complain that our churches are too large, too impersonal and we do not always find there the warmth and emotional support we legitimately desire and need… If our creeds are correct, and I believe they are, we are destined to spend eternity with billions and billions of other people. Worshiping in large groups is a good way to get some practice at this.” (Rolheiser, 117) Would not the continually declining church populations he mentioned just prior to this have something to do with this? I also think Jesus would not want people seeking God for the first time to walk away from a house of worship thinking cold and impersonal are the defining characteristics of his followers. There are better and more creative ways. You can be both big and welcoming. Love and service should be part of everything we do for one another within the Church.

The last one is regarding sex, specifically celibacy which he states as being too long the spiritual ideal and that it is wrong to do so. He later says, “It is painful to sleep alone but perhaps even more painful to sleep alone when you are not sleeping alone.” (Rolheiser, 196) I believe that this shows an immaturity in sexuality. To say it is wrong to be celibate is incorrect; there were quite a few figures in the Bible and even through to today who felt called by God to be celibate instead of married and spent their lives serving Him. I think there isn’t anything right or wrong about being celibate as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. Having been both in a long-term relationship and now single, I feel no loneliness in my singleness. I am content. When there are so many struggle with their relationship status I think it’s probably an ill-advised thing to call celibacy wrong or speak loneliness over the unwed. They might be perfectly fine being patient and trusting in God and the spirit instead of the call of their bodies.

(A few things I liked in… part 2)